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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Weekender: Tufts dental student John Sobhani speaks on work with true-crime Netflix documentary

Cecil Hotel is pictured.

Content warning: This article discusses death, murder, suicide, violence and mental illness. 

Since 2013, the disappearance of 21-year-old Canadian student Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles has captured the internet’s attention, causing much speculation about the strange circumstances of Lam’s death. Now, director and executive producer Joe Berlinger (executive producer of “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” (2019) and “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich” (2020)) brings a four-part docuseries to Netflix in an attempt to uncover the truth behind the Elisa Lam case. The series reached number one of the top 10 TV shows in the U.S. on Netflix last weekend.“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” (2021) (one of whose other producers is famed actor and director Ron Howard) features a third-year student at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, John Sobhani, as a source on the case. Sobhani recently spoke with the Daily about his experience working on the series, as well as how he first got involved investigating the case itself.

A quick overview of the case: Lam was a tourist from British Columbia in Los Angeles staying at the Cecil Hotel. The hotel itself carried a reputation of violence, murder and suicide prior to Lam’s stay; for example, serial killer Richard Ramirez, also known as the "Night Stalker," is believed to have stayed there in the 1980s. After disappearing on Jan. 31, 2013, Lam was discovered dead almost three weeks later in one of the water tanks on the hotel’s roof.

During their search, police released the last known footage of Lam in the hotel’s elevator to the internet. During the video, Lam behaves very strangely — peering outside the elevator door, darting back to the corner of the elevator as though she’s hiding, exiting the elevator and seeming to converse with someone in the hallway — which led to all sorts of speculation online.

The documentary tracks all the clues of Lam's disappearance, and contextualizes it within a conversation about the Cecil Hotel's history, the systemically oppressed area of Los Angeles in which the hotel is located, the police response and mental health.

One particularly notable facet of the case, however, was the internet's involvement in figuring out how Lam disappeared. Online investigators' theories ranged from measured and methodical to wild and conspiratorial, even paranormal. The documentary includes testimony from a few of these ‘web-sleuths,’ of which Sobhani is one, in order to fill out this crucial aspect of the Elisa Lam case.

Sobhani has been investigating Elisa Lam’s disappearance for the last eight years, starting the day she was reported missing in February of 2013.

“The case drew my concern,” Sobhani said. “When the news broke out when Elisa went missing, notifying the public of her disappearance, it put me on high alert." 

During his investigations, Sobhani was actually able to visit the Cecil Hotel. 

“I did visit the area, and eventually went inside,” Sobhani said, “and, from what I saw, it lived up to its reputation.”

As for the case itself, Sobhani explained some of his findings and observations from his investigations. 

“Basically, Elisa had gone missing for two weeks, and the last known footage of her was an elevator video, and it’s difficult to tell, but she was not acting as someone would normally act when they’re entering an elevator or exiting an elevator. With that said, if that was the last known footage of her before she went missing, it makes you wonder what happened,” Sobhani said.

Sobhani also pointed out some of his observations regarding the autopsy report: “At first, if you look at the autopsy report, something was marked that opened the possibility of thinking that there were suspicious circumstances that led to her death, then... it was erased [and] corrected to accidental drowning. And then looking deeper into the autopsy report, which I spent a lot of time studying, there are a lot of questions.”

One complication in the Elisa Lam case, which Sobhani made sure to address, was that Lam struggled with mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and depression.

According to Sobhani, "Elisa was on two different medications and it was known that she had suffered from depression, and one of the medications is documented to have overpowering effects over another medication. And, unfortunately, the medication that has that overpowering potential has a side effect of suicidal ideation. That’s not to say that suicide was definitely the cause, but it’s a reason as to why people have different opinions regarding the case.”

Because the elevator footage of Lam eventually went viral, many groups on the internet have had their own speculations about her disappearance — whether she was murdered, whether she committed suicide or whether someone was pursuing her the night the elevator footage was captured.

Sobhani’s investigations eventually led him to create a Facebook group and a documentary about his findings. Online, Sobhani had a keen interest in combating much of the exaggerations or speculations surrounding the case. 

“I emphasized simply presenting facts. A lot of my work throughout these last eight years has been telling people, 'No, this is rumor. It’s not been documented — this is something that Elisa has been labeled as, but it’s not necessarily what really happened,'" Sobhani said. "I guess through the creation of the Facebook group and through my own documentary that I was directing over the years, I detailed the vulnerabilities and possibilities of what could’ve happened, emphasizing representing facts, separating facts from rumor, despite many, and to present, I have been doing my best to present Elisa as a human being rather than as a subject.”

It was through this Facebook group, according to Sobhani, that a producer of “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” reached out to him, asking to provide his expertise on the show. 

“I had a wonderful experience working on it,” Sobhani said, “and I’m grateful for the opportunity every day.”

Throughout all of this, Sobhani emphasized his desire for people to understand Elisa Lam as a person. 

“I hope that the viewers’ takeaway is being aware of Elisa’s case," Sobhani said. "I want people to open up about mental health, for one thing. I also want people to know that Elisa mattered, and that she was a human being deserving of love and dignity. We should take more care to people with mental challenges … It would be great if people watched the documentary to understand what really happened, and I hope that I can be a small part of helping to give her a voice so that I can bring further attention to those suffering with mental illness, as well.”

Though he did not reveal any conclusions about the case that the Netflix series may or may not reach, Sobhani did end his interview with an assurance. 

“You will have an answer when you watch the show to the end,” he said.

“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” is on Netflix now.